Zodiac, which clocks in at two hours and forty minutes, is a film that could do with some trimming on the edges, but somehow it manages to stay interesting for the full length of the run time. Directed by David Fincher, who is always at his best with dark, oddly frightening films – think Fight Club and Se7en – Zodiac follows the investigation of the infamous Zodiac killings in California in the 1960s and 70s. Fincher opens the film with the murder of Darlene Ferrin, the Zodiac’s second victim chronologically but the first to bring him to the attention of the press, and follows the investigation over the course of the years through the eyes of San Fransisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), who becomes involved with the case at the outset and remains obsessed with it even when investigators have given up.
Structurally speaking, the film gets messy at times, and this has much to do with the length of it; Fincher should have tightened it up and gotten rid of some of the extra material. At the same time, elements of the plot are strangely developed – for instance, Graysmith’s romance with Melanie (Chloë Sevigny), and the subsequent breakdown of feeling between them has to be inferred – or not developed at all. The central problem here is the way Fincher jumps around among his characters, spending extended periods of the film focusing on one or another and neglecting the rest of them, only to have them reintroduced with various unexplained changes. Even Gyllenhaal, set up at beginning and end as the main character in the film, is almost absent from the middle. This doesn’t sink the movie, by any means, but one is left with a nagging feeling that it could have been done better.
The strong cast is what keeps the movie going strongly. Apart from Gyllenhaal, who isn’t bad but who somehow lacks a certain charisma in the role of Graysmith, every member of the cast is extremely good: Robert Downey Jr., as an unconventional writer at the Chronicle, has most of the film’s few humorous moments; Anthony Edwards’s conflicted cop William Armstrong is thoroughly believable; and Chloë Sevigny is effective in a comparatively minor role as Graysmith’s somewhat plain girlfriend. Of all of them, though, Mark Ruffalo is the standout, charismatic and watchable in every scene as he takes on – at first determinedly, and then with increasing frustration – the mystery of the Zodiac killings. (Beyond the central cast, Charles Fleischer, appearing in only one scene, makes it the most genuinely frightening of the film; this is the only scene that reaches the levels that we know Fincher is capable of.)
On the whole, Zodiac is a solid film, but not a great one: the acting is good, the direction is good, and the script is good, and these elements combine, as they should, into a good movie. That said, it doesn’t do anything we haven’t seen before, and compared to Fincher’s earlier offerings it is, despite its undeniable few thrilling moments, positively tame. It’s worth a watch, but don’t expect anything revolutionary.
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